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Commodities and Steelhead An imperative shift on the Olympic Peninsula.

by Josh Mills

Wild Steelhead are not corn, wheat, or cattle. They are not oranges, apples, or anything that we can control with expected specific outcomes and pounds delivered to market. Put them in a box and they will swim right out of it.

Even among anadromous fish, steelhead are the least predictable of any salmonid swimming the North Pacific. They are never a species of multitude, like Kings, Coho, or even Pinks, that come home in a rush of biological delivery to the rivers spanning the West Coast. They cruise along the edges, arriving to their natal rivers in fits and spurts, with dozens of life histories across each watershed. In short, there were never that many steelhead to begin with.

They are the ultimate pliable fish, bending to fit the needs of each basin and each population subset from California to Alaska. Resident rainbows spawn with female steelhead. Some smolts spend one year in their home river, some spend four. There is magic in these mysterious fish. In turn, they spur fanaticism in many anglers.

In the face of this, we stand at a precipice of collapse. Even the last best place is in jeopardy. We already have the roadmap showing what will happen to the Olympic Peninsula if we do not make fundamental changes. We must stop viewing steelhead, especially wild steelhead, as a commodity.

Even fish managers with the best science available aren’t sure what is going to happen year to year. They work hard to provide the best possible prediction of run counts, but we really don’t know what to expect. It is a guess.

On top of that, we have a marketing perception that treats the fish returning to rivers like the Sol Duc, Calawah, Hoh, Chehalis, Quinault, and others, as a never-ending supply—and we promote it as such. We have a hard-working guide community that built lives on showcasing, and exploiting, what this resource can offer the angling public. But now they are faced with an awfully hard truth: Adapt or die.

There’s also a tragedy of the commons occurring on the Olympic Peninsula’s rivers, as an unchecked guiding fleet has outgrown the resource’s capacity. After sitting, with more than 160 others, through two hours of passionate testimony regarding the monumental changes in management on the Olympic Peninsula, what was most apparent was how stuck some people are.

We must change.

Reducing season lengths, eliminating bait, and eliminating fishing from a boat on most rivers, are all prudent changes. Anglers can still fish, guides can still guide, and we can, and will, adapt. Think about British Columbia’s steelhead streams and Oregon’s famous Deschutes. No one is allowed to fish from boats in either place, yet they are doing fine.

We can blame so many things. Sea lions to gill nets to the Blob, but we as an angling community need to get our house in order. Nobody is born with the right to make a living off a public resource, especially a collapsing one. That is a personal choice guides have made. We cannot keep driving these fish toward destruction with techniques so effective that the majority of returning adult steelhead are caught multiple times. Even if mortality is below ten percent in catch-and-release fisheries, do the math after counting the recreational and guide boats at Morgan’s Landing on the Hoh. It is common to have twenty boats with two anglers each. Day after day. This adds up to significant mortality. And—among the fish that do survive—loss of spawning success from getting handled too much.

There are so many contributors to the decline of wild, Olympic Peninsula steelhead. Guides are only part of the reason. So much is out of our hands, with ocean conditions, the food web, droughts, and floods. This is why we must control what we can control.

The fact is, OP wild steelhead stocks are now consistently missing escapement goals. With escapement being the bare minimum of spawning fish needed to replenish each year’s numbers. We are like contestants on the old ’70s game show, Press Your Luck, screaming for “Big bucks! No whammies!” Soon, we are going to get whammied.

Tribal co-managers have volunteered to join anglers in reducing impacts. It is encouraging to see them come to the table knowing that change must happen on the OP. It is time to applaud both WDFW and Tribal managers for their willingness to make these changes. Because the status quo is failing the fish. Failing.

We can gnash our teeth and wring our hands, but the changes instituted by the Department are necessary, sensible, and scientifically backed. We must give these fish in-river sanctuary; places where anglers cannot reach them, and where they are allowed to rest and wait to spawn.

We can still fish through this restriction, but lessening our impact is the real goal because we cannot depend on next year’s run of fish to be counted and measured like pork bellies. We do not know what we do not know.

And to that issue, it is past time to fund and institute full sonar population-studies to accurately determine run size, timing, and take. Sonar is the gold standard technology of fish-population monitoring. It is used all over Alaska to control real-time fishing regulations over the course of both sport- and commercial-fishing seasons. It is inexcusable that we aren’t using it on the Olympic Peninsula.

We should also consider additional funding sources like daily or seasonal OP endorsements. These could help prevent financial shortfalls and put more enforcement on the ground to fight against illegal netting, poaching, and excess take.

If you have been on the Olympic Peninsula, floating a river like the Hoh, you know how special it can be. When your spoon or fly gets crushed, and a brawling, wild winter-buck takes you into your backing, you know how exceptional these fish are.

They are all special. They are all worth fighting for.

They were never a commodity and never can be. They are unique and wild, full of life, and we must make the changes to ensure their future.

Josh Mills is an obsessed steelhead angler, fly-tyer, and conservationist from Spokane, WA. He sneaks away to fish, bird hunt, and be outside anytime he can. Additionally, he has proudly served on the Wild Steelhead Coalition Board of Directors for more than seven years. He dreams of the day when his father and his young boys share a steelhead run together with him.

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  1. Excellent piece well worth the consideration for every angler who wants steelhead for the future. Artificial, barbless should be the least we can do. Anglers have gotten so much more technically proficient these days that it is hard for the fish to run the gauntlet. Age has caught up with me, but I sure miss steelhead days of the past and hope there will be fish for younger generations. Tough decisions will have to be made.

  2. Over the past century and a half, west coast steelhead populations have been in steady, persistent decline from abundance to extirpation or near extirpation throughout their ranges in the contiguous United States:
    • San Juaquin River: historic 1,000,000 // present more or less zero (100% decline)
    • Klamath River 750,000 // present a few thousands (97% decline)
    • Columbia River: 4-5 million // present not more than 30,000 (99.3% decline
    • NF Stillaguamish River: at least 125,000 // present about 900 (99.3% decline)
    • Puget Sound: 600,000 //present – not more than 10,000 (98% decline)
    • Hoh River: at least 50,000 // present about 2,800 (95% decline)
    By any objective standard, the management regimes pursue over past 150 years have been a complete failures. The only west coast populations not either already extinct or on the verge of local extirpation are a couple of dozen Oregon and Washington coastal steelhead populations. In Washington, those populations are trending steeply towards ESA listing and cry out for drastic steps to reverse the steep declines. In response to the sharp downward trends and projected failures to meet escapement goals, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife imposed this week some bandaid restrictions – no fishing out of boats, bait bans, shortened seasons, etc. In our view, these are nowhere near sufficiently restrictive to reduce angling related mortalities
    There are many factors contributing to declining Washington coastal steelhead populations – we all know about them – excess harvest/angling related mortality, diminishing reproductive success related to hatchery programs, degraded habitat and so on. Let’s be clear that the number one factor, and one the co-managers are completely and solely responsible for, is excess harvest/mortality.
    Consider the Hoh River, for example. The Boldt court approved escapement goal (fish avoiding mortality in tribal and sports fisheries) was established at 2,400 fish in 1979. Let that number sink in:
    • Historic Hoh steelhead abundance was at least 50,000 and more likely 100,000+;
    • pre-hatchery abundance at least 18,000 (early 1960’s);
    • present escapement goal 2400 (which has been achieved less than half the time over the pst ten years). The present escapment goal is less than 5% of historic and only 13% of pre-hatchery abundance in a system with 70% of the watershed in pristine condition and inhabited by about 100 souls. This watershed should be producing runs that approach historic abundance or at least 35%-40% of historic (i.e. 20,000-40,000 wild steelhead) That it is not is directly attributable to gross mis-management and sustained massive excess harvest. Even more damning, Hoh steelhead routinely fail to even meet ridiculously low escapement goals due to excess harvest. As if there were not insulting enough, the new regulations do nothing to address two fundamental problems: excessive angling pressure with resultant excessive angling mortality. Note: I have fished the Hoh for over fifty years. Current effort has incresaed at least 20-30 fold. No steelhead river can sustain this level of effort/mortality;
    • The inescapable conclusion: if escapement goals approved by the Boldt court had been properly set, OP steelhead populations would have remained stable or increasing over the past 43 years. They have not. Coast wide, all wild steelhead populations have declined annually. In other words, not enough steelhead reach the spawning groups to sustain their populations. Over the same timeframe, angler and tribal fishing mortalities have, year after year, removed too many returning adults from the spawning grounds. In many coastal steelhead systems, the existing fishery regulations result in spawning populations that fail to meet agreed spawning escapement.
    Note: both these problems are management failures not biological failure. Simply stated: the combination of tribal harvest fisheries and recreational catch and release regulatory regimes do not provide for adequate escapement. The inescapable conclusion: WDFW and the tribes have grossly, even criminally, mismanaged these populations for more than 100 years. Don’t you think its about time for some radical changes?
    It’s pretty simple: rather than a few tweeks on the margins, recovery of coastal steelhead populations require DRASTIC changes immediately: increased escapements; and, reduction of tribal and angler related mortality. In the case of tribal fisheries, this means less netting effort. For recreational anglers, it means some combination of reduced effort (fewer angler days) and regulations to reduce angler encounter rates and reduced mortality per encounter.
    I’ll leave it to the court and the tribes how to reduce net mortality. On the recreational angler side, the first issue is how to reduce angler effort. The current free-for-all system is not sustainable on a biological basis and dramatically reduces angler enjoyment/satisfaction. WDFW needs to implement regulations to dramatically reduce the daily angler effort. The department has long experience how to accomplish this on the hunting side:
    • limited entry – daily limits on the number of anglers per river system. This is easily accomplished with an on-line daily licensing system
    • drastic reductions in non-resident anglers. Non-resident hunters are limited to no more the 10% of quality big game tags. Note: there are more elk than wild steelhead in Washington. 10% seems reasonable for steelhead non-resident angling effort;
    • Drastic reduction of guide effort. Guides are not guaranteed a livelihood on a public resource. The US Forrest Service and BLM limit the number of big game guides on their lands. Washington can certainly and easily do the same re OP guide effort. As with non-residents, 10% of the available daily licenses seems like a reasonable and fair goal;
    • Gear restrictions. Again the hunting side of WDFW has long experience in this area with separate seasons for archery, muzzle loader and modern firearm seasons. The least “efficient” or “effective” methods get more generous season while rifle hunters are restricted in both time and area. The same concepts are easily applied to angling – no fishing out of boats, no bait, hook size, fly fishing only and so on. For example, it is a well established fact that fly fishing is much less “efficient” (catch per unit effort) than gear fishing where one gear fisherman has the same mortality impact as about SIXTY fly fishers. Fly fishing mortality can be further reduced by requiring the use of floating fly lines and unweighted flies. Such regulations would allow a large number of anglers to fish daily while drastically reducing angling related mortality;
    • Based upon gear related encounter rate and associated total mortality, WDFW can establish daily angler limits;
    • WDFW/Commission could even set up a system where some rivers are open to gear fishing with lower numbers of anglers and others fly fishing only with significantly higher angler effort to assess the impact on the different steelhead populations.
    Our prediction: the recently adopted coastal regulations do not go far enough to reverse the steep downward trend in steelhead abundance. At the same time, since WDFW made no effort to reduce effort or guide trips while forcing the same number of angler onto a greatly reduced physical geography, there will be a dramatic increase in acrimonious interactions between anglers. Imagine yourself after a lengthy walk into bar on the SolDuc. Prior to the current regulations, when boat anglers (guided and unguided) floated into the run, they generally floated through and a few of them might even refrain from casting into the water you are fishing. Now, they will pull in crossing over the water you are fishing. Two or Three of them will jump out and start fishing the run you are occupying. I predict fist fights, maybe fire fights.
    WDFW needs a clear sheet look at alternatives that will lead to recovery of steelhead populations while creating conditions for peaceful enjoyment of the resource. What they have adopted achieve neither.
    Pete Soverel
    President, The Conservation Angler

    • Excellent solutions Peter! I also think closing fishing down completely on one Or more of these rivers for several years could arm us with scientific data we need to prove your point about mismanagement and incorrect escapement quotas. The Elwha is a good start to this.
      We need bold action, backed by science!

  3. Great article and a push in the right direction. So much of what we actually do in the big picture and is happening is a replay of Puget Sound just 30 years ago..
    Sonar would be as pivitol as a true hook impact study. Might look into the ” salmon” season increased effort all of April when we are no longer allowed to be present. Bad trades will kill all the sacrafices and efforts we work for..

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